PART ONE: THE PROPHET OF THE QUAG
Despite some magical strengthening provided by her chancellor, Lea had no stamina left by the time the southern gates of Tsab became visible. It was shortly before midnight on the third day out of Vorti, and even the guards had lost the snap in their step. The queen's blistered feet were painful to walk on, and her calves, which had once burned with agony, now felt as detached and lifeless as her benumbed hand. She stumbled frequently, but there was always someone to catch her before she fell. Virtually asleep on her feet, it was with amazement that she realized they had reached their destination.
Guc recognized that an official welcome would wait until morning. Indeed, Lea was fast asleep and snoring before his servants bore her to her bed. Wil lingered long enough to see that the queen's guards were given adequate accommodations before retiring to chambers adjacent to Lea's own.
Although the King of Tsab would have liked nothing better than to join them in slumber, he knew there were matters that had to be attended to first, not the least of which was a briefing with his friend and advisor Mak.
The pair met in Guc's private sitting room, the smallest chamber in his spacious eight-room apartment. Even here, the king's preference for the exotic was on display. The carpet was a thick plush imported from Torg, the tapestries lining the walls were splashed with the colors of Merk, and the ornately carved chairs, divans, and tables were products of a small elf settlement in the Forest of Llam.
After closing the curtains screening the sitting room from the rest of his chambers, Guc briefly embraced Mak before taking a seat. He pulled off his boots and propped his feet up on a table, letting his stockinged toes enjoy freedom from their confines.
"You were later than expected, Your Majesty. We were becoming concerned."
"Bad weather, damn it! This whole trip was cursed from the beginning. When did you get in?"
"This morning. I spent last night in Xert after delivering your message to King Yax."
"And what did that wrinkled old bastard have to say?"
"Not much. He expressed regret at what happened, but indicated that any 'incidents' near Flaz' Quag were outside his official jurisdiction and Fels could not be held responsible for injuries or deaths."
"How did he react to the quatic news?"
"He didn't seem disturbed by it. In fact, he went out of his way to note that by going so close to the Quag, we were almost inviting an attack."
Guc began cursing under his breath. Either Yax was deliberately closing his eyes and mind to a growing problem, or there was something sinister at work. Knowing the small-minded little king, Guc presumed the former. Yax was too petty to engage in dangerous politics, and few things could be more uncertain than an alliance with quatics. Not even Guc would dare something that insane.
"How is the queen?" asked Mak.
"Tired, and in bed. She bore up well, though. Better than I would have expected."
"You sound almost proud."
"Do I? Perhaps, but consider what she's been through. I'm not sure I'd be in half as good a shape if I had to slog halfway across the continent on my first trip away from home, and that's after getting her hand shredded during the quatic battle. Lea of Vorti is made of sterner stuff than either you or I thought."
"This doesn't change your plans, does it?" asked Mak.
"Certainly not! If anything, I'm more determined than ever to marry her. What a wife she'll make, not to mention the prize she brings with her!"
"But if she is that headstrong, she may not want to cede control of Vorti."
"She won't have any choice in the matter," said Guc. "And if she struggles against the inevitable, there are always alternatives. Vorti will be mine, with or without the consent of its queen, and in uniting the cities, Tsab will be raised to its former glory."
"And Wil and Eya?"
"Lea I have come to care for, but those two are dangerous. Doubly so, because they're Apaths. At some point, both will have to be eliminated. The only question is how to get rid of them efficiently enough to prevent them bringing their powers to bear."
"Perhaps with another Apath?" Mak allowed himself a faint smile.
"I'm thinking of one Caa, formerly of Merk, who arrived here while we were in Vorti. Apparently, he's filed for citizenship so he can marry a local noblewoman's daughter."
Now Guc shared his friend's smile, for not only was Ina a member of the Tsab nobility's inner circle, but she was an ardent supporter of the king. "Perhaps a deal can be reached. It may due to make inquiries about exactly how far Master Caa is willing to go for love. Tread carefully, though. The last thing we want to do is anger or alienate an Apath."
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